Giving at the Grocery
Local cooperative Wheatsville Food Co-op encourages customers to give back by rounding up
by Abby Moore
Wheatsville Food Co-op was established in Austin in 1976, making it the first food cooperative in Texas. After 43 years, it remains the only food cooperative in the state. While the co-op is owned by its members, everyone is welcome to shop there. The nontraditional business model may not work elsewhere in Texas, but the community-forward focus resonates with the ethics of Austin, according to Chief Executive Grocer Dan Gillotte.
“The catchphrase ‘Keep Austin Weird’ might be corny at this point, but it’s a catchphrase for a reason,” Gillotte said. “People want to support things unique to Austin.”
Gillotte started the Community Action Program in 2001, motivated by the store’s success and the city’s communal spirit. The idea for the program was borrowed from the Outpost Natural Food Co-op in Milwaukee, which donates monthly to local nonprofits. Gillotte took the concept, but added a cooperative aspect akin to the grocery’s founding principles.
“We’ve found that people really like to participate in that democratic aspect of choosing the beneficiary organizations,” Gillotte said, “and the nonprofit groups really love having our members choose them.”
All 22,000 Wheatsville member owners in the Austin area are invited to vote in the election that takes place mid-Fall. Organizations represented in the previous year automatically have a spot on the ballot. Owners can also nominate organizations they hope to see represented. According to Gillotte, the chosen programs tend to align with Wheatsville’s missions of food, community and the environment.
Of the 22 organizations on the ballot, 11 are chosen. “It’s a no-lose election,” GIllotte said, “each group is doing amazing work.” The groups are then allotted one month out of the year to be the recipient of all raised funds. One month is reserved for the Wheatsville Co-op Community Fund.
The most heartening part of the process, according to Gillotte, is seeing how generous the people of Austin are. Wheatsville donates $1,000 to each community group at the end of every month, but the rest of the money comes from non-member customers rounding up at the register.
“You see these transactions of ten cents, twenty cents, fifty cents,” GIllotte said, “then you see them transform into $16,000 at the end of the month.”
By the end of 2018, Wheatsville raised and donated a total of $181,393 to local nonprofits. November was the highest earning month with $17,591 awarded to Central Texas Food Bank, followed closely by September’s $17,003 for Meals on Wheels Central Texas.
“For a lot of these nonprofits, getting a sizeable injection of money in the middle of the year is a real boost,” Gillotte said. “When they know that it’s coming from hundreds and hundreds of people rounding up, it buoys them.”
Aside from donations, Wheatsville employees are encouraged to volunteer at a community group of their choosing. These outings are organized monthly, connecting staff to the chosen groups and allowing them to better understand how the resources will be used.
Going into 2019, Gillotte hopes to put more energy into those volunteer excursions and to drive the round-up numbers higher. “Wheatsville fosters an atmosphere of hospitality, kindness and generosity,” Gillote said, “so the idea of inviting people into that generosity [through rounding up] is what our co-op is all about.”